Arsenal – Aston Villa was a clear indicator that Mikel Arteta’s honeymoon period is well and truly over, with the Gunners suffering a heavy home defeat to Villa on Sunday.
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Bukayo Saka scored an own goal in the first half and Ollie Watkins added a late brace to put the game away in the second half of a game which saw toothless Arsenal offer very little resistance to an Aston Villa side which looked every bit their equals — if not their superiors — for the whole of 90 minutes.
3 things we learned: Arsenal – Aston Villa
1. Boring, boring Arsenal: Perhaps Mikel Arteta is attempting a “hard reset” of the club’s tactical identity, attempting to move out from beneath the massive shadow of Arsene Wenger and put his own mark on the team as he builds his own long-term project. Whether or not that turns out to be the case, this isn’t Wenger’s Arsenal — it’s the furthest thing from it. To Arteta’s credit, Arsenal entered the weekend with the fewest goals conceded in the Premier League (7 in 7 games). There’s nothing wrong with pragmatically, assuming you’re happy to finish somewhere between 10th and 7th every season. With the talent Arsenal possess, Arteta is doing his team a disservice as currently deployed.
2. Aubameyang to striker, Lacazette to… wherever: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is not only Arsenal’s best player, but he tends to be the lone source of danger for the Gunners these days as well. There’s not much, if anything, controversial about that statement. An observation: it must be hugely frustrating to see Aubameyang forced out to the left wing — a spot from which he has scored plenty of goals, granted — and limited in the number of ways he can affect the game for Arsenal. Cut inside, go past a defender, curl a shot to the far post — that’s the extent of Aubameyang’s game these days. Meanwhile, Alexandre Lacazette continues to start as the lone striker and contribute very little relative to Aubameyang’s glittering record in the very same role. It’s frustrating for Arsenal-neutral observers to watch.
3. Watkins a man to face the big teams: Watkins has scored six Premier League goals since signing for Aston Villa this summer, including three against Liverpool and two against Arsenal. Perhaps Dean Smith has landed the perfect striker for facing the so-called “big sides,” given Watkins’ frightening pace in the opening field and increasingly clever off-ball movement on the counter-attack. His other PL goal came against current top-four side Southampton.
Aston Villa needed just 46 seconds to put the ball in the back of the net, only to have it wiped off the board. John McGinn lashed a left-footed finish past Bernd Leno after Jack Grealish picked him out atop the penalty area, but Ross Barkley was standing in an offside position halfway between McGinn and Leno. Martin Atkinson eventually went to the field-side monitor to have a look and determined that Barkley had obstructed Leno’s view of the shot. There are legitimate questions to be asked over whether or not Leno had any chance of making a save as the ball was hit with such power and placement from close range, though that particular nuance does not factor into the rules involving offside decisions.
It was Aston Villa who were next to put the ball in the goal, again, this time by way of an own goal charge to Bukayo Saka in the 25th minute. Matt Targett played the ball across the face of goal for Trezeguet at the back post. If not for Saka’s failed intervention, the Egyptian would have had a tap-in himself.
Arsenal’s best chance at a first-half goal came in the 42nd minute, but Alexandre Lacazette headed the ball well over the crossbar from six yards out. Kieran Tierney delivered the chance on a platter, but the Frenchman couldn’t make anything of it.
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Arsenal needed a fair bit of time to come to life in the second half, and they failed to make it last even when they did so.
Aston Villa weathered the brief storm and hit back in rapid fashion not long after Nicolas Pepe missed the Gunners’ best chance to pull level at 1-1. Barely 60 seconds later, Villa connected a diagonal ball from Douglas Luiz and a volleyed cross from Barkley with the head of Watkins for a sensation team goal and a 2-0 advantage.
Seconds later, straight from the restart, Aston Villa pranced down the field and came within a foot or two of making it 3-0. Grealish got on the end of a cross from Barkley and hammered it low and toward the far post. Leno was fully beaten, but Dani Ceballos raced back to the goal line to boot it clear just in time.
Two minutes later, Watkins succeeded in making it 3-0 as Aston Villa carved the Arsenal defense to pieces with a devastating counter. Former Arsenal goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez threw the ball out to Grealish who carried forward before playing Watkins in behind for the one-on-one finish, which he took with expert precision.